A campaign to demand accountability for one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters has triggered a fresh wave of repression from a government already acutely sensitive to criticism.
Activists have suffered severe harassment, death threats and arrest for daring to demand transparency from officials, following a toxic leak in April that devastated the livelihoods of fishermen in central provinces.
The government’s aggressive response appears to reflect alarm in the Communist party hierarchy about the scale of the protest movement that’s developed since dead fish began washing up on central beaches in early April.
Thousands of fishermen and their families have staged demonstrations outside the Formosa steel plant in Ha Tinh province where the leak occurred, and have submitted law suits to demand compensation.
Two prominent bloggers who highlighted the cause of the protesters have been arrested in the last few weeks. Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as Me Nam (Mother Mushroom), has been held in isolation on a charge of spreading propaganda against the state, while Ho Van Hai was detained last week and is being investigated on the same charge.
Surveillance, arrests and beatings
Other campaigners have also been targeted.
“Three human rights defenders engaged in activism relating to an ecological disaster in Vietnam are facing severe harassment, including public denunciations, prosecution and death threats,” said Amnesty International in a recent waning about the scale of the crackdown.
It identified them as Father Dang Huu Nam, a Catholic priest who has been helping to organise the mass protests and legal claims; Nguyen Van Trang, a university student who has already been detained for taking part in some of the protests; and Paulus Le Van Son, a Catholic social activist also involved in the campaign.
“Father Nam has been subjected to surveillance, death threats, arrests and beatings by security police and individuals in plain clothes,” said Amnesty in the report.
“Nguyen Van Trang has been targeted through public denunciations in local media, on the radio and on neighbourhood loudspeakers; Paulus Lê Van Son has been subjected to surveillance, denounced in local media and now fears for his safety,” said the report.
Lack of transparency
Observers say the authorities are resorting to heavy handed repression to try to contain a protest movement that they believe challenges the authority of the Communist party.
Officials were slow to respond to the disaster, taking little action until weeks after the first dead fish began appearing on the beaches near the steel plant.
In June, an investigation held the Formosa owned plant responsible for the disaster, but no government officials have been held accountable for failing to regulate emissions or to mount a timely response.
Activists say the $500 million offered in compensation by Formosa is inadequate and its distribution opaque.
They say the lack of transparency feeds suspicion that officials are still working with company staff to cover up the full story.
By breaking up demonstrations held in major cities and arresting independent bloggers who have highlighted the case, the police are attempting to intimidate victims of the disaster and their supporters, and to contain the development of a well organised protest movement.
In the four worst affected provinces, the consequences of the disaster remain severe.
Even official figures acknowledge there has been a substantial increase in unemployment.
Hotels, restaurants and all aspects of the tourist trade have also been severely affected.
Activists say the compensation paid so far is only for the months immediately after the mass fish kill. They say nothing more is being offered to families whose long term livelihood has been affected.